Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Convention thoughts

Some commentators have noted that the Democratic and Republican conventions were "infomercials" for the two political aprties. Such criticism fails to understand not only the purpose of the Democratic and Republican conventions but also conventions generally. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a convention "is the action of coming together, meeting, or assembling." Exactly! Both conventions do all three. Meetings take place during the day, and at nights, they assemble in the Pepsi Center (where they probably wish they could be drinking Coca-Cola).

What the speeches do is aid the first function of "convening"--coming together. It is notable that the dictionary lists coming together as a separate function from assembling. In other words, if coming together does not mean to assemble, it must have emotional function (the Oxford does not waste words). As any convention goer can tell you, most conventions are supposed to have an emotional effect as well. You attend them not only to gather information but also to become renewed within your field. When one does not feel that renewal, she or he is probably in the wrong field.

When commentators perform their cynicism about the function of conventions, it is at least somewhat warranted, just as any convention goer may later question the time and expense he or she spent on a few days where all anyone seemed to do is talk. But when Hilary Clinton and all the rest of the speakers get up there, their performance is geared toward renewing the fever and commitment of Democrats. That's why people go to conventions--to recommit to something they are already committed to.

But because there are spectators, the function of the convention goes beyond the attendees. In a sense, we are all attending the convention if we want to. Last week,  Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama reached out to all possible attendees, both at the convention and in their living rooms --which is one reason why Obama has symbolically set himself down in living rooms to watch the convention--he's attending the convention the same way we are. This week, the Republicans did the same. That the conventions were televised and performative didn't make them any less conventions.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

The NEW Time Magazine Cover

Thanks to Charles Harris for his good question about the September 1 cover of Time, which features, yet again, Barack Obama. We had a lot to say about the previous Time/Obama covers, and we're pretty intrigued by this one as well. As Harris correctly notes, this cover evokes the disembodied head and racially charged (and now notoriously altered) O. J. Simpson cover, which we also write about. It's an interesting choice here--the return to a genre and design that failed the first time--for yet another heavily racialized African American celebrity.

In this version, Obama comes off as almost godlike, looming over the middle-class readers of Time Magazine. Neither smiling nor frowning, neither arrogant nor obsequious, neither warm nor cold, Mr. Obama appears delicately bathed in angelic light as he pokes his head out from the darkness of eight years of the Bush administration. Halo or heaven's glow? It doesn't seem to matter. Either way, the effect lightens Obama's skin tone, making Harris' comparison to the O. J. version a sort of inverted mirror of the racialized past. If Time tried to make O. J. look more evil, are they now trying to make Sentator Obama look more holy?

The editors pretend to attempt to draw attention away from Obama and put it on the Democrats via the headline. But, when have 18 point letters trumped a big photo?

Ultimately, the question is, does the Obama on this cover look spooky or reassuring? Your reaction to that question may have less to do with the Time cover and more to do with the lens through which you are already looking.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Semiotics of Competence

David Broder, known for his centrist views of politics (and a scourge of many on Daily Kos), comes away from a visit to the Obama campaign headquarters impressed

As I posted on this a few weeks ago, I think the business of running an efficient and focused campaign is a key element to making voters feel comfortable for voting for a first-term senator. The semiotics of competence and organization goes a long way to making voters more willing to give a relatively inexperienced candidate a chance. It's not the prime narrative of the campaign--that would be change--but a crucial one nonetheless. 

That this story made it to Broder, who has been around since The Boys on the Bus, is a sign that this narrative is breaking into the mainstream.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

More T-Shirts

Who doesn't love a good t-shirt?

No one we know. In fact, Obama supporters have reinvented the political t-shirt. There are so many Obama tees out there, it's hard to keep up.

One of our favorites is the homeboy t-shirt to the left. Sure, his haircut looks a little too much like Bill Kristol's, but no one would ever mistake Kristol for a homeboy. We like the wood carved look of this shirt, and the Branson font is so downmarket it's upmarket. SemiObama Grade: A-

I call the shirt to the right the German postage stamp. I'm sure the designers would prefer to think of this one as the "Yes We Can" shirt, but we like "Ja, Bitte!" The small sun bursts shining up make Obama look royal, especially against the background that resembles a regal crest. SemiObama Grade: B+

One of the strangest is the Che/Obama shirt. I love how the advertisers make sure you see the enlarged Che icon, just so you won't think the "O" contains Obama's image. I wonder what the intentional connection is between Che and Obama. Liberation? Concern for the poor? Charisma? Cigars? My main critique of the film version of The Motorcycle Diaries was its silence on Che's post-revolution record as a thug, so over-romanticizing Che here costs the shirt SemiObama points. SemiObama Grade: C

The coolest shirt is the Bad Ass Obama shirt, a la Mr. T. We pity the fool who doesn't like this logo. Sure, it's an easy comment on race, power, and, most importantly, bling, but that doesn't make it predictable. Evocative of the iron-on decals of the 70s, the shirt is quietly political but loudly humorous. SemiObama Grade: A

The political t-shirt is an underexamined genre. More personal than a bumper sticker and more sassy than a sign, the political t-shirt combines both fashion and politics--two atypical spheres. Compared to the John McCain shirts, which tend to be largely textual and overly earnest, the Obama shirts skew toward the visual and the humorous, no doubt a reflection of of the candidates themselves. That said, we wait, anxiously, for the first Vice-President shirts of 2008.

Until the VP t-shirts hit the streets, though, we close today's post with some also-rans.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Horrifying: The Disturbing Obama Knock-Knock Email

One of the occupational hazards of writing about Obama is the spam. Actually, I'm not sure it's spam if the email is targeted. In general, I'm the target and Obama is the subject. Or, is it the other way around? Sometimes, it's hard to tell.

Mostly, I get pro-Obama emails, alerting me to cool sites, which I'm always happy to receive. And, not surprisingly, I am often the recipient of anti-Obama missives, reminding me, I suppose, of the passionate Obama resistance movement, invisible but intense, out there in the remote reaches of cyberspace. Mostly, these are innocuous notes with links to crazy sites, some of which we've linked to here. Occasional critique comes across the transom, which, again, I'm happy to receive.

The jokes, however--at least the racist ones--don't make me happy. They make this small place inside my stomach feel like I've swallowed a shot put. It's one of the few times my strong advocacy of free speech goes smashmouth up against my notion of ethics, civil rights, and hate discourse. Early on, SemiObama did a post on some of the racist Obama images floating around on the Internet. We figured part of reading Obama semiotics involved taking on even the most incendiary images.

I got that same shot put feeling today, when an email appeared in my inbox. With a subject line that read "Horrifying Knock-Knock Joke," it proved to be an email I both wanted and didn't want to ignore.

Indeed, it was a knock-knock joke encoded in a PowerPoint format. The entire joke took up five slides, each of which contained the standard knock-knock formula that I'll replicate below with simple dialogue, except for the punchline, which is visual. It went like this:





[click the right arrow on and it brings up this punch line]

First the good news: The caricature could have been much worse. Let's be honest about that. But, even better, it would appear that even the KKK predicts an Obama victory in November.

Now the bad news: It seems that despite the nearly universal acknowledgement of Obama's intellectual acumen (and even John McCain's admission of his eloquence), some still think group stereotypes trump individual transcendence. It's not surprising, sure, but it is annoying. Tiger Woods experienced it; Hank Aaron even worse. MLK, one of the most articulate American of the 20th century, worst of all.

Most reassuring is the joke's lameness, it's lack of teeth, despite the fact that it tries very hard to draw attention to Obama's teeth--a detail that continues to puzzle.

What I find interesting about this final slide is the coupling of the visual racial stereotype with the lexical one. The joke needs both to be "funny." Thankfully, the joke isn't funny. It's just racist. There is nothing singularly Obama-specific about it at all. The entire joke hinges totally and completely on race which is why it fails.

Effective propaganda is scary; lame propaganda just makes its practitioners look stupid. As far as SemiObama is concerned, it's pretty clear which this is.

Mos def.


More on the barns

The Washington Independent writes up further developments of the Barns for Obama story.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Link: Obama Porn

Thanks to Matt Hedstrom and Andrew Sullivan for alerting us to this really funny site of Obama "porn." Like SemiObama, it is interested in images of Obama--both real and invented--in popular and internet culture.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Semiotics of Egalitarianism

The Washington Post earlier this week had an article about the way Obama's office runs, similar to the articles Rolling Stone and Time ran earlier this year, though with a little more of the traditional journalism's "good points and bad points" model (aka "fairness" and "objectivity").  

There does not seem to be much disagreement that running an office in an egalitarian manner, with a good control of information, is a good thing. But let's think about why. It signals to us that the candidate or the candidate's political leaders have control and flexibility. Such control is obviously necessary to running an even larger organization--the United States. Listening to many voices also can strike us as being democratic and American, and it also shows the confidence Obama has in himself and his team.

It raises more meta questions as well. When supporters of Obama read this pieces on process in the campaign, it's likely heartening; they want a president who listens and has control. Because they feel this way, they may be curious about whether the campaign wants them to feel this way. In other words is the process both a strategy to win a camapaign and a meta campaign in itself?

If it is, it shows a campaign working on multiple levels toward the most difficult of goals. 


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Insider view of the semiotics of the McCain campaign

This article focuses on the way John McCain is using  coded symbols against Barack Obama.

Barack Barns

Over on DailyKos, farmbo posted this dairy on barns painted with Barack Obama logo in Ohio. 

It's an interesting (if perhaps inadvertent) comment on the perception that Democrats generally and Obama specifically have difficulty with rural voters. If a farmer is willing to paint a barn with Obama's logo, that probably indicates a comfort with how his community will receive it. 

While the job is quite professional looking,  advertising on barns is not limited to politics...